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(The Hamilton Spectator – Friday, January 25, 2013)

ARUSHA, TANSANIA ✦ Edward should be fired. I can’t trust Alice. And our piano and laptop won’t resurface any more than anyone will know what happened to that $13 million.

This is how it’s going around here.

Not right here, actually. I’m on business one country over, just southeast from my home in Uganda. At the moment I’m drinking a cider of sorts, what the gentleman beside me called ‘rotten apples,’ a pretty good name, I think, for my recent experiences.

‘Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.‘ This is what a writing hero of mine once said.

He’s right. Not that I’m afraid, at least no more than anyone in Africa should be. In Uganda, a family of nine was just murderd in their sleep. A father just beat the corpse of his dead child. This, Uganda’s daily news. So I’m happy to be away for a break, some perspective, some air.

Alice used to help us in our home. A rather beautiful photo of her with her children was once in this newspaper. But then, later, her ugly threat against my family. It changed everything.

Edward is an electrician employed by the university where our Ugandan home is located. He robbed us. Just after, someone stole my children’s electric piano. Just after that, someone stole my wife’s laptop. And just after that, she and I chased another thief across our yard.

Finally, the $13 million is what Uganda’s Prime Minister’s
Office recently ripped off from international donors: Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. You may have heard, it was given by those donors for Uganda’s north, the area previously devastated by Joseph Kony’s rebels.

Beautiful and terrible things, with the weight on the terrible, for sure. So what do we do?

The Wall Street Journal says in the past 60 years Africa has recevived $1 trillion from rich countries, but about 350 million Africans now live on less on less $1 a day, double the number of the 1970s. The help, apparently, is not helping.

Too much of it is free money for corrupt governments to use for all the wrong things, including to overstay their welcomes. Entire national economies have become dependant like a drunk to his botttle, and millions have been left trapped and suffering.

Look at Uganda’s poor taxpayers. They will now repay that $13 million. Even the African Union reports that corruption costs Africa a staggering $150 billion a year.

Edward, like Uganda’s government, apologized. Later, to keep his job, he denied his crime … just like the most senior officials in Uganda’s Prime Minister’s Office have kept their jobs.

This is all Africa’s daily beat. So, really, what can we do?

Does my family simply pack up and return to Canada? Do rich governments simply turn off the so-called golden taps, especially during times of austerity?

Certainly, regarding my own rotten apples, I’m pushing hard for Edward’s dismissal. And we’ll improve our home’s burglarproofing.

Similarly, donor countries need to push hard, harder than in the past, to dismiss corrupt officials. And they need to tighten security around their aid dollars by, at minimum, rerouting government-to-government channels.

The issues are more complex. More nuanced. But we do need to find new creative ways. Because rich nations can’t give up on the world’s poorest. Not for a minute. Just like, despite that old threat from someone like Alice, my family can’t give up on her, or more so, her children.

They’re the kids we help with school fees, the ones that go to a Ugandan school where, for this new semester, each kid is required to bring things like six pencils and six rolls of toilet paper and, if you’re boarding overnights, a bucket for bathing, and other things so lacking that it all breaks your heart.

A couple of days ago, Alice showed me the report of her oldest son. She was so proud. “Do not be relax,” was the full extent of his teacher‘s remarks.

“Do not be relax?” I wondered, just what value are we getting for what we’re paying?

But I know what she meant. And that teacher is right. None of us can relax. Not really. Too much is at stake.

About Thomas Froese